Santorum's Sacrifice

Two months ago, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum threw his hat into an already crowded ring for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. His announcement on D-Day invoked his “courage to fight for freedom.”

While Santorum isn't the only conservative in the field, he does have a nice pedigree for soliciting Republican support. During his tenure in Congress, Santorum was known as a go-to guy for social conservatives. In that time Rick authored or sponsored bills to protect newborn infants, promote adult stem-cell research (as opposed to embryonic stem-cell research), and maintain workplace religious freedom.

Yet in order to stand out in a group of perhaps a half-dozen candidates of varying conservative credentials, Rick had to move beyond his social conservative base and come up with other issue arguments which appealed to both Tea Party regulars and Republican voters at large who may have recalled his ignominious 18-point defeat by current Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey, Jr. in 2006. That election was a disaster for Republicans all over the country, but Santorum managed to be the one incumbent senator who was absolutely crushed in his re-election bid.

A good step in erasing that memory came last month when Santorum unveiled an economic plan focused on bringing back manufacturing jobs, which was applauded in at least some quarters.

Still, there is a segment of conservative activists who won't forget that Santorum toed the establishment Republican Party line in 2004, when he backed fellow Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter over the more conservative Pat Toomey in the Republican primary. Santorum issued a partial mea culpa last year, saying that the support of the incumbent was based on a promise that Specter would back any of President Bush's Supreme Court nominees. But the 2004 primary was a bitter defeat for the conservative voters in the Keystone State to swallow, and it was made even worse when Specter changed party affiliation to avoid a rematch with Toomey in 2010. That fateful 2004 decision may have  doomed Santorum two years later as conservative Pennsylvania voters either stayed home or pulled the lever for Casey, a rare pro-life Democrat.

That establishment streak reared its ugly head again in the wake of the debt ceiling debate as he hammered fellow Republican contenders Michele Bachmann, Thad McCotter, and Ron Paul for a lack of leadership in the debt ceiling debate. While Santorum states he would have voted against the deal -- as Bachmann and Paul eventually did -- he chastised the pair who lead him in the polls on Fox News, saying, “I don't know how if you want to be president and lead the country, and if you can't lead Congress -- it doesn't speak well for your ability to lead the country.

Obviously there's a problem with making such a statement when one is out of office, particularly when Bachmann and Paul have been visible in their fight for smaller government for some time. They didn't become Tea Party darlings overnight, as both have cultivated that base for many months before Santorum decided to seek the highest office in the land. Making such a statement was about the only way that Santorum could fumble being on the right side of the issue insofar as the American people are concerned.

And the controversy comes at a bad time for Santorum, who's already facing an uphill battle in Iowa. Though the Ames Straw Poll comes extremely early in the electoral process, this first test was too much last time around for former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, who withdrew from the 2008 race after a disappointing sixth place finish. While John McCain finished next-to-last in the 2007 edition of the Ames Straw Poll because he skipped the event, the eventual Republican nominee had previously always finished among the top three.

Santorum is one of nine contenders in the straw poll Saturday, with a number of them -- Bachmann, Paul, and Herman Cain -- also counting on support from Tea Party regulars against “establishment” candidates like Mitt Romney (who, like McCain in 2007, is skipping the poll but on the ballot) and Jon Huntsman.

It's apparent that Rick's strategy in this presidential bid is to shuck the “establishment” label placed on him by conservatives when he supported Specter over Toomey in 2004. But his harsh criticism of Tea Party favorites Bachmann and Paul may serve to remind voters who agree that a Republican nominee needs to be a Washington outsider (at least in spirit) of how he came to be known as the “most ambitious” politician from his home state of Pennsylvania.

UPDATE: And the Winner of Ames Straw Poll Is...